Mayor Marty Walsh'sannouncement this week that Boston's indoor performance venues will not be allowed to reopen for the time being did not come as a surprise to performing arts groups in the city, but it couldn't have come at a worse time.
Most had no plans to put on shows any time soon, but ordinarily, they’d be busy getting ready now for popular holiday shows that are crucial to their financial success.
“That’s their bread and butter. And it pays for the programming for the rest of the year,” said Catherine Peterson, Executive Director of ArtsBoston.
In July, asurvey by the Mass Cultural Council reported cultural nonprofits in the state had already lost nearly $425 million in revenue as a result of COVID-19 cancellations and closures.
"As generous as individuals and foundations and corporations are in supporting the arts, it's not enough long term to keep the sector healthy," Peterson said. "We're going to see arts organizations that are not going to make it. And we're going to see a sector that is going to be potentially very damaged."
Peterson said cultural organizations need more financial aid from the state to survive, and she notes that the economic impact of the arts extends far beyound the ticket window.
An ArtsBoston report says audience members usually spend an additional $675 million annually at restaurants, parking facilities, and other local businesses.
On Friday, stagehands from Massachusetts theaters organized an event to roll empty equipment cases from the Citizens Bank Opera House to the Boch Wang Center in Boston's theater district to draw attention to 12 million workers in the live events industry nationally who haven't been able to work since March. The demonstration was organized by theMassachusetts Live Events Coalition, which formed after the shutdown and represents stagehands, production workers, and other employees in the industry.
"We definitely want to fight for safely reopening and we feel like there needs to be a conversation, like there has been for restaurants and for some of the other industries, about how we get there," said Mark Consiglio, the coalition's president. The coalition is pressing for the workers it represents to be included in the Gov. Charlie Baker's task force for reopening the economy.
Even though the closures have been devastating to revenues — leaving arts groups and their employees scrambling for new ways to get by — many say it's best not to rush to open the curtains back up again, and supported Walsh's decision to keep theaters closed.
"I very much agree with the mayor. I think it's a very responsible move," said Paul Daigneault, founder and Producing Artistic Director at the SpeakEasy Stage Company. "Public health is not back to where it needs to be for us to produce theater indoors safely, not only for our patrons, but also for our artists and technicians and staff. You know, it's one thing to figure out a way to social distance an audience. But how do you do that with performers?"
Even if theaters were to reopen now, they're unlikely to attract big audiences. A survey of regular theater-goers conducted by ArtsBoston in September showed 83 percent of them would not be interested in attending an indoor performance until a vaccine is available, infection rates largely disappear, and testing and treatments improve.
SpeakEasy had already announced that the earliest they plan to do live performances is March 2021. For now, they'rehosting online discussions about plays and theater management, and asking participants to contribute whatever payments they can.
For lighting technician Mandy Holt, the pandemic put an abrupt halt to her dream job. After 15 years as a freelancer, she said, she got a job with the production company 4Wall Entertainment last year. Eight weeks later, the shutdown ended that job.
"I always knew that if I didn't have a full time job, I could always go back to freelancing," she said. "Now, there's nothing to go back to."
Holt said she's doing landscaping work now to help make ends meet, and doesn't know when and if she'll get her production job back. "You know, it's the unknowns that are terrifying."
Last March, the federal CARES Act extended unemployment benefits to freelance workers for the first time. But since many in the arts field work a combination of regular jobs and freelance jobs, they don't make enough money in either area to qualify for benefits.
"[The IRS] will not look at it together, which means that musicians were qualified for almost no benefits," Hazel Dean Davis, an orchestral hornist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Popsexplained on GBH's Greater Boston Thursday.
She's one of the founders of theNew England Musicians Relief Fund, which is providing financial grants to help musicians during the pandemic.
Dean Davis said she and many of her colleagues had managed to make it through the summer with whatever assistance they could get.
"But I fear it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better," she said. "The fall is usually when our calendar opens up and all the seasons start. And the holidays usually bring in a lot of our income. And obviously all of that is dark."
This year, audiences face a season without being able to attend holiday traditions like The Messiah, The Nutcracker, a Christmas Celtic Soujourn and the Holiday Pops in person.
But some traditions are carrying on in a new format.
The Boston Ballet is partnering with NBC10 Boston tobroadcast the Nutcracker on TV this year, using archival footage from earlier performances.
"Is it devastating not to be live in the theater? Yes. But it's been pretty clear for a while that it wasn't going to be safe by December to do that," said Max Hodges, the Boston Ballet's executive director. "And when we evaluated all of our different options for how to continue bringing the magic of The Nutcracker to our audiences this season, we got hugely excited about the idea that actually in this year we might be able to bring The Nutcracker to broader audiences than ever before."
Like most performing groups in the city, the bulk of the Boston Ballet's revenue is usually earned from ticket sales. Hodges said this year it will mostly be philanthropic dollars keeping the organization afloat. They expect to have a $22 million budget this year, down from $35 million in a typical year, she said.
Other holiday performances, including GBH's own Christmas Celtic Sojourn, hosted by Brian O'Donovanwill be broadcast live online. This December, O'Donovan said, is going to be a particularly sad time for those who miss the rituals of the holiday.
“So we are determined to bring some Comfort and Joy — that is our overall theme this year — into people’s homes and are working with our theater partners to do so. “
It's not just holiday performances that are going online.
On Thursday,Company One Theatre announced the lineup for its new season, including what they're calling a "digital world premiere" of the play "Downtown Crossing" by David Valdes, based on interviews with undocumented immigrants in Boston.
"We're learning. It's hard," Hodges said. "There are definitely bumps in the road, but this could be part of the way our art is made in the future, long past COVID."
In the long run, "I think all of these things will help make Boston Ballet a stronger organization in the future, despite the challenge of the current moment," she said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the value of losses suffered by cultural nonprofits as of July.